Interview by Kari Lund-Teigen
Melanie Little is an award-winning author and editor. Her debut collection of stories, Confidence, was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Award and selected as a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book. Her 2008 novel-in-verse for young adults, The Apprentice’s Masterpiece, was a Canadian Library Association Honour Book, a gold medalist at the Independent Publisher Book Awards, and a White Raven selection for the International Youth Library in Munich.
She began her career as an editor by bringing Freehand Press to national prominence in its first year with the Giller-prize finalist Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott. Of Melanie Little as an editor, Endicott has said “she brings a truly ridiculous diligence to any task she undertakes.” After teaching creative writing at Dalhousie, Little returned to editing as the editor-at-large for Annick Press before becoming the senior editor of Canadian fiction at House of Anansi Press.
I wrote to Melanie to request an interview, mentioning a long-ago talk we’d had while she was the writer-in-residence at the University of Calgary. In that meeting, she was exceedingly kind and encouraging. That moment of encouragement meant a lot to me, and I wondered, as I often do, not how writers begin, but how they continue.
Little recently stepped down as senior fiction editor at House of Anansi Press to devote more time to her own writing. She graciously agreed to the interview (preferring, as I think many writers do, to conduct it via email). I sent her a list of questions, telling her to ignore those that were not interesting to her or that she did not feel like answering. True to form, she answered them all, with generosity and depth.
Did you ever consider not becoming a writer?
I knew I wanted to be a writer the minute I learned one could be such a thing. Apparently, when I was three, I quizzed my parents quite relentlessly on the “written by…” portion of my picture books—Was there really such a person? Was that really a job?—and complained mightily if they skipped that page when they were reading to me. There’s never really anything else I’ve wanted to be, though I’ve certainly had periods where I’ve wanted to give up. In fact I’ve “quit” quite a few times—I remember one notable dark night of the soul in 2002 when I decided I’d had enough, that I was going to give up my foolish dreams and find a “real” profession. The next morning I got a call from Patrick Crean, the editor who would publish my first story collection. The plans to give up vanished pretty quickly, I can tell you. But of course they still return, frighteningly often.
Have there been critical moments of encouragement that have helped you continue as a writer?
Well, for Number One, see above. But I have to say: every time someone has told me that they enjoy my writing, whether it’s been a professor or a student or someone I’ve met at a reading or even my mom, that’s been a critical moment. Writing is terrifying and difficult and most of us can never get enough encouragement. I’ve been surprised and comforted to learn that that’s true of even the most successful writers I know. The need for encouragement never goes away.
What kinds of jobs have you had? What job has given you the most time and energy for your own writing?
I’ve worked as a sales clerk, a bartender, a marketer, a professor, and, for the last seven years, as a book editor. Quite frankly none of these jobs has left me with enough time and energy to pursue writing with the commitment and sustained concentration it requires. There are people who can get up at 4 a.m. and write for two hours and hold down full-time jobs in teaching or in banks and then come home and revise their matinal draftings into a publishable novel. I don’t seem to be one of those people.
I’m quite fond of what I call my Cathedral Gift-shop Fantasy. Hours: 12:30-4:30; pay: oh, $200 an hour, I guess, unless they can also house me in the cellar or something. International travellers in Tilley hats come in and speak softly and buy lovely postcards and once in a while ask me an informed question about the stained glass. There is no take-home work and no stress. Sigh.
I do feel fortunate that I’ve stumbled into editing, and that I seem to have an aptitude for it. I’ve been able to work with some of the best writers in the country and I’ve learned important lessons about both writing and publishing. But being an in-house editor at a major publisher, as I was lucky enough to be at Anansi, is a gigantic commitment of its own. It’s every bit the vocation writing is. There is no down time. There are not enough hours in the day to do the kind of quality work you want, you need, to do, so you stretch those hours to include every moment you’re not asleep. There is an enormous amount of intellectual engagement required, too, and it’s difficult to have anything left for your own work. I’m in awe of publishing people. We all should be.
I’m trying to continue working as an editor on a freelance basis, limiting the number of projects I take on so I can continue to write. I’m cautiously optimistic about this plan. But if any readers out there have a line on a cathedral…
How do you begin a story?
Usually with something very simple or small: a thing someone says, an image, a moment of disappointment or elation. I particularly like writing short stories because I can allow them to surprise me—the form is smarter than the writer, I find, and I like to let a story gestate and grow in its own good time. Not a very efficient work model, perhaps, but quite often a rewarding one.
How do you work your first draft? Has this changed over the years? Can you put on an editor hat for your own writing in the same way you can for others?
I can say unequivocally that my method has indeed changed since becoming an editor. One thing I’ve learned is to avoid the temptation to tinker too early. It’s frustrating for editors to get line-perfect draft after line-perfect draft from writers who haven’t yet nailed the fundamental things like the characters or the story. I say that knowing full well that I’m that kind of writer too. I can get lost in the navel of my own perfectionism and forget that I’m writing for readers, not myself. And I’m very capable of neurotically polishing the opening ten pages of a story to a blinding sheen and never making it further than that as a result.
As for whether I can put on an effective editorial hat with my own work, that’s an open question for now. In some ways, editing is the very antithesis of the creative process—it’s monkey mind on overdrive. You’re always on the alert for the false note, the wrong turn, the “filler” scene. If you approach an early draft with that mindset, you won’t make it past the first page. So I’m trying to repress my inner critic until I’m well into the revision stages of my new work. It’s not easy.
Have you ever abandoned a writing project?
Have I. Though I never say die—you never know when you might want to return to a project with a fresh perspective. A project is only truly dead when the computer it’s on dies completely and you can’t for the life of you find any backups of the file. But yes, to take your question more seriously: I do think it’s important to walk away from a project, at least for a period of several months, if you’re completely stuck. I always think of what Alfred Hitchcock frequently said to his screenwriters: Don’t force it. You’ll never get it if you force.
What is the most fun part of writing for you?
Early revising—that wonderful time when the story is in place, the draft is more or less complete, and yet there are still areas where you want to expand or enrich or rethink. The terror of the blank page is gone and the process becomes what for me is an exciting blend of art and craft.
And also, performing in front of an audience. I think it’s important not to do this too early in a work’s life cycle, lest you find yourself writing in order to please a live audience rather than a reading audience—those can be two very different things. But there’s nothing, in my opinion, like making a room full of people laugh.
What are you working on now?
I have a lot of projects bumping up against each other in the queue. But for now I’ve dug in on a novel that incorporates some of the surprising things I’ve learned about publishing and about myself over the last few years. And I’m gathering a new collection of stories, as well—slowly, of course!
Do you have a writing routine? Is there anything that you feel is absolutely necessary for you to write? (e.g. silence, a comfortable chair, a pen)
As far as having a routine goes: no! I wish I did. But besides the need to know there’s no one looking over my shoulder, I’m pretty flexible in my requirements. I write both in a paper notebook and on the computer. I write to music, to silence, to the sound of my husband’s keyboard in the next room, to the din of voices in a food court (better than a café, for my money). In high school I used to go behind the stage curtain at lunch—the auditorium doubled as the cafeteria—and there, to the clamorous but indistinguishable voices of my peers, I had some of the most productive writing sessions of my life. Too bad it was all dreck.
The one thing I do need is the absence of other important tasks hanging over my head. I don’t have to tell you that this is a disastrous personality for a writer to have. I’m trying to get better about this, but the mornings when I’m able to write for a few hours before I open email or the internet tend to be my most productive. That means answering emails and getting on top of outstanding editing projects the night before, so I don’t wake up feeling “behind.”
You’ve published a book of short stories and a novel. How does the writing process differ for you between short and long fiction?
I have learned the hard way that I’m not a writer who can embark on a long-form writing project without at least a rough blueprint in place. If I do, I tend to write sixty pages and then find myself lost and abandon the project in favour of something else. With Apprentice, which was a novel in poems, I got a clipboard and lots of blank paper and wrote a tentative title for each poem on the top of each successive piece of paper—very much like the cue-card method but with greater space for writing. Once I had the plot roughly sketched out with the aid of these poem titles, I went back and worked on writing the actual poems.
Can you remember the first book that inspired you as a writer? Are there books you’ve read recently that have given you the same feeling?
Without a doubt it was Dr. Seuss and Green Eggs and Ham. Words and sounds for, not entirely but certainly not least, the sheer joy of them—I’ve never found a better reason to write. I’ve had similarly joyful moments recently discovering the work of the U.S. poets Frederick Seidel and Kay Ryan, and rereading Great Expectations for the umpteenth time and marvelling at Dickens’s way with a sentence. Recent reads of work by George Saunders, Julian Barnes, Tobias Wolff, and Miranda July have left me gobsmacked and envious, which is a kind of inspiration too. And working with Lisa Moore on her new novel Caught was an indelible experience for me. She so profoundly embodies the necessary tension between inspiration and artistry, both in her writing method and in her results. And she seems to enjoy every second of it. We can all stand to crib a page from that.
Kari Lund-Teigen’s recent work appears in The New Quarterly and can be heard at The Canadian Fiction Podcast. Her fiction has also been published in Alberta Views and was shortlisted for a Western Magazine Award. She was recently longlisted for the 2013 CBC Short Story Prize.